Memory to Meaning

Mine is not a hero’s journey.

I have not been a war­rior,(1) nor a war cor­re­spon­dent.(2) I did not track down an entire East­ern Euro­pean nation­al soc­cer team and defeat them at ten­nis on a whim,(3) nor invent the Cos­mopoli­tan.(4) I have nev­er been a vio­lent drug addict, or even pur­port­ed to have been one.(5) I have not strug­gled through a night­mare of men­tal ill­ness,(6) or had my life turned inside out and man­gled by the mad­ness of those I was depen­dent upon for love.(7)

In the end, I sup­pose, the sto­ry I have to tell is no more or less than any of those allud­ed to above. It seems far less to me: far less dra­mat­ic, far less mov­ing, far less dev­as­tat­ing, far less mean­ing­ful. I believe this is large­ly because I am the one who has already lived all the expe­ri­ences that make up my life, my jour­ney, my sto­ry. It will read far dif­fer­ent­ly to those who are not me.

But for them to read it, for them to pon­der the words that tell the tale of a life that has unfold­ed as has mine, I will first need to tell it; I will need to actu­al­ly open my mem­o­ry — open my soul — and put down upon the page, one word after anoth­er, the sto­ry that, of all the sto­ries that have ever been told in the entire sweep of human exis­tence, is mine alone to tell.

It is not enough to mere­ly tell a series of events and expe­ri­ences, either. I must ulti­mate­ly craft my life sto­ry, shape it; I must dis­cern in it an arc of mean­ing, or maybe even more than one. This is what dis­tin­guish­es mem­oir from auto­bi­og­ra­phy: mem­oirs, like the great spec­i­mens allud­ed to at the open­ing of this post, are works of lit­er­ary art. They do more than dili­gent­ly nar­rate the events of a life: they make from the events of a life a work of mean­ing that holds some rel­e­vance to the shared human expe­ri­ence of the read­er. Like a sculp­tor find­ing a stat­ue in a block of Por­tuguese mar­ble, I must find the sto­ry that is in my life. I must, not give my lived expe­ri­ence a mean­ing (for it is rife with mean­ing already), but rather I must dis­cov­er what mean­ing it best con­veys it a giv­en form, and find the form that best con­veys the mean­ing that feels most genuine. 

These are not small tasks. Then again, cre­ative writ­ing, mem­o­ry work, myth mak­ing — these are not small things to attempt. But they are all worth attempt­ing, and with all my being I look for­ward to the labors, almost as much as the fruits.

1) Antho­ny Swof­ford, Jar­head
2) Antho­ny Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So
3) Tony Hawks, Play­ing the Moldovans at Tennis
4) Toby Cec­chi­ni, Cos­mopoli­tan: A Bar­tender’s Life
5) James Frey, A Mil­lion Lit­tle Pieces
6) Kay Red­field Jami­son, An Unqui­et Mind
7) Augusten Bur­roughs, Run­ning With Scissors

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